Our Caregiving First Ladies

On President's Day, most Americans will be celebrating the birthdays of former Presidents Washington and Lincoln, but this presidential holiday I am going to be wishing a special "thank you" to two former First Ladies who have truly been champions of family caregivers.

When it comes to our nation's family caregivers - that undervalued army of 65 million Americans who are providing care for a loved one with chronic illness, disability or aging challenges - one of the biggest caregiver issues is feeling all alone.

So my wish to caregivers is to take some comfort in the fact that you are part of a "club" whose members are in the millions - and whose membership includes celebrities and even some former First Ladies. These First Ladies have legacies that are multi-faceted but their advocacy that resulted from their caregiving experience is inspirational and worth our celebrating.

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Rosalynn Carter - Caring for Parents On Both Ends of Her Life

In her book, Helping Yourself Help Others - A Book for Caregivers, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter writes, "We can learn to approach caregiving as a blessing as well as a challenging task."

She knows of what she speaks firsthand: Rosalynn was only 12 years old when her father was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. As the eldest daughter, she helped care for her ailing father and supported her mother by also caring for her younger siblings. She took up caregiving again for several relatives with cancer after she left the White House and most recently was caregiver for her mother who died in 2000 at age 94.

Rosalynn's gift to caregivers comes from a lifetime of understanding the challenges, emotional, physical and financial, that accompany caring for a loved one. A long-time devoted and determined advocate for those Americans with mental health issues, Rosalynn Carter is also behind the founding of the Rosalynn Carter Institute (RCI) for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia.

The mission of the RCI is to establish local, state and national partnerships with organizations focused on quality, long-term home and community based services to help caregivers. The RCI activities include a variety of advocacy, academic, and awards and scholarship programs. While many of the caregiver programs are Georgia-based, these programs are examples that help lead the way for nationwide caregiver support, education and training

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Nancy Reagan - Caring for a Beloved Spouse with Alzheimer's

Nancy and Ronald Reagan's touching affection for each other was never as poignant as in the letter former President Reagan wrote to tell the world he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In this letter, President Reagan not only helped shine his celebrity spotlight on a disease which many Americans did not understand, but he also highlighted the concern he had for Nancy who would be caring for him. He understood the difficult emotional toll it would take on his wife and as the disease progressed, he did not even recognize her.

Nancy has described the last 10 years of her husband's life as "the long good-bye." While Nancy had the resources to care for her husband in ways most Americans do not, the emotional toll it took on her cannot be ignored.

What was perhaps most heartwarming was that the strained relationship Nancy had with her stepchildren and with her own son and daughter, actually improved over the course of President Reagan's disease diagnosis and decline. Family dynamics are sometimes difficult to navigate during caregiving and can lead to added stress and strife. But, in this instance, it brought a family closer together which is one of the gifts that can come from caregiving.

Since President Reagan's passing, Nancy has become a passionate advocate for Alzheimer's disease awareness and education and especially the research around embryonic stem cells. She also speaks about her personal caregiving journey and the need to recognize caregivers as a crucial part of the "care team" around a loved one.

Other First Ladies have acknowledged the role of our nation's caregivers. As senator from New York, former First Lady Hillary Clinton helped support several legislative bills to help caregivers, and First Lady Michelle Obama last year recognized the "Sandwich Generation" and the difficulty of raising children while caring for an older parent or loved one.

If you are a caregiver, remember you are not alone. Reach out to others to help you - family, friends, a support group, or a spiritual advisor. There are numerous resources, organizations and people who can help you through your caregiving journey. Only through sharing can we help you with the caring.

About the Author: Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America's 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance "self care" while caring for a loved one. She was Chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and former senior director for Caregiver Programs and Services at UnitedHealthcare.


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